GTCC students navigate nontraditional career paths for women to achieve success

Published on: June 16, 2022
Darla Smith (left) and Lauren Lewis
Darla Smith (left) and Lauren Lewis are thriving in nontraditional careers while taking courses at GTCC.

Darla Smith and Lauren Lewis have never met, but they are related by two things: Both chose nontraditional career paths and each delivered championship performances in the execution of their job skills.

Lewis is enrolled in Guilford Technical Community College's collision damage appraisal program. Smith is in the college's paramedic program. The women chose career paths typically taken by males, but Lewis and Smith are unfazed.

"It's a little nontraditional, and it's a male-dominated field in a way, but I wanted to do something to help people and give back," said Smith, who is an Emergency Medical Technician working 40 hours-per-week for Providence Transportation and who is a full-time student at GTCC.

"I thought about going to nursing school, but I really enjoyed a challenge. When you are in an ambulance, you never know what you are going to get."

"Believe it or not, the fact that my new career path is male-dominated is one of the reasons I chose it in the first place," Lewis said. "I have always gotten along better with males than I have females. In general, males tend to have less drama surrounding them, and I find I am drawn to them for that reason."

Both Lewis and Smith are in the workplace almost daily in addition to taking classes. Both agree they have received very little pushback from their male counterparts in either place.

"A lot of guys don't expect you to lift as well as you do, and some of the guys definitely make it challenging with some of their locker-room talk," Smith said. "I think girls can do anything guys can do. I think, typically, people think females just do nursing, but that's a gender stereotype."

"There is one other female in the program I am currently in, but a vast majority of the class is male, and all of them are extremely friendly, helpful and supportive," Lewis said.

Lewis and Smith already have bachelor's degrees, Lewis in equine science and Smith in geology. Smith also has a master's degree in intercultural communications.

Lewis had plans to be a veterinarian but became disillusioned with the field when she worked in a veterinary office after graduating from Auburn.

Smith moved to Alaska after graduating. "It sounded like fun," she said.

With her boyfriend, who recently became her husband, Smith left Alaska and moved back to the Triad after a couple of years. She then trained to become an EMT and began full-time work in the field.

"I actually decided to be an EMT and go to paramedic school because of my best friend. He has a lot of health issues and helped me always believe in a better version of myself. He is my biggest supporter. It would take years and years of medical research to ever help my friend, so this was the best way I could do something to help others," Smith said.

Once she fell out of love with veterinary medicine, Lewis was driven to the collision damage curriculum by her love of cars. And a cagey, observant teacher nudged her along into the collision damage appraisal path.

That teacher, Jim Brown, was convinced after working with Lewis that she would be perfect for the collision damage appraisal curriculum. He pushed and prodded her to enter the SkillsUSA competition last spring, the same competition where Smith was vying for honors among EMT students from community colleges across North Carolina.

SkillsUSA is a national nonprofit organization serving teachers as well as middle school, high school, and college students who are preparing for careers in trade, technical, and skilled service occupations. Through its local, state and national competitions, students demonstrate occupational and leadership skills.

Lewis and Smith captured state titles in their respective competitions, part of a larger group of 17 GTCC students who scored first-place finishes in the competition.

"It turned out to be a very amazing experience. It was very challenging. I would be lying if I said it wasn't difficult. They asked everything," Lewis said. "Our teachers did a very good job of preparing us. My classmate came in second. For sure that is a huge sign our teachers understand what we are doing. I attribute all of our success to them, their patience and time."

Smith, Lewis and all of the GTCC winners advance to the national championship, a five-day competition in Atlanta in mid-June. The chance to be crowned the best in the nation has the entire group doubling down on preparation.

"I'm definitely nervous about Atlanta," Smith said. "I don't want to let my professor or the college down. We are working hard preparing."

"I'm trying to learn as many aspects of this that I can," Lewis said of her preparation for the collision damage appraisal competition. "SkillsUSA is at a whole different level. It's the best of the best."

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